USA Hockey has had its share of great moments.  Most notable is  The Miracle in Lake Placid during the 1980 Olympics.  It is the greatest upset in modern sports history.  Team USA has also had some other fine moments such as winning the 1996 World Cup of hockey in a thrilling battle against Canada.  The World Junior teams in 2004 and 2010 were able to win gold.  Team USA can also lay claim to two Silver Medals from the 2002 and 2010 Winter Olympics.  All in all, a pretty respectable resume considering the dominance of Canada, Sweden, and Russia during this time period.

Fast forward to this year and Team USA surprised some and won gold at the 2013 World Junior Championships in Ufa Russia. While it is not surprising to me that a team with quality goaltending, solid defensemen and timely scoring can win a championship, it was worth taking note of the diversity on Team USA.  13 different states were represented on their roster, including some that are definitely not considered to be classic hockey markets (Texas, California, Florida).

This diversity is still in its early stages but it definitely has the potential to become commonplace within the next generation or two.  Hockey may still get shortchanged in the States by networks such as ESPN but that has not stopped hockey from growing in non traditional markets. 

Gary Bettman is a polarizing figure in Canada (and United States), mostly because he has led the league through 3 work stoppages.  There is also anger for him in Canada because he is the guy who transplanted a few Canadian NHL franchises into non traditional US hockey markets.  As time goes on Canadian NHL fans will probably see that disdain grow.  The reason is simple; Bettman has given the USA Hockey program a huge boost with Southern expansion.  The numbers of players registered through USA Hockey  jumped immensely in non traditional regions after there was an NHL team placed there.  With more and more players coming from regions that previously were untapped, the percentages and odds would say that there is potential for more and more talented players to be developed.

Since most of these NHL teams moved into non traditional markets in the early 90’s, it makes sense that we are starting to see players from these markets popping up on the international stage now. 

Instead of taking my word for it, lets look at the raw data courtesy of USA Hockey’s website:

Since 1990 USA Hockey’s membership totals have grown from 195,125 to 511,178 in 2011-2012.  That is a huge jump and has more than doubled the talent pool to draw from (162% to be exact).  More specifically, the talent pool has jumped immensely in the non traditional markets.  Here is visual representation of 3 different non traditional hockey regions and the growth they have seen.   The graph is using data available at USA Hockey's website :

 

Online Graphing

The three regions included are: Southeast, Pacific, and Rocky Mountain.  Without question the data shows the immense gain in membership totals, but I do think it is worth pointing out the plateaus in growth.  It’s no surpsise that in 1994-1995 and 2004-2005  is where growth leveled off.  The NHL lockouts were the #1 culprit.  The other drop on the graph is 2008-2009 and I attribute that to the considerable drop in the US/Canadian economy.  When the economy struggles it is no shock that the amount of dollars available for life’s amenities goes down.  Outside of NHL labor issues and significant economic recessions, USA Hockey membership growth has been consistent and positive in non traditional markets.  The present lockout might put growth numbers in a holding pattern but I only think it will be for the short term as the graph above has shown from previous lockouts.

 There are different reasons and events for the dramatic rise in membership totals and here are examples for each region. 

Southeast Region

The Southeast region as USA Hockey defines it includes: Alabama, Arkansas, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia

In 1990 the membership totals for this region was 4,462.  The membership totals from this region for the 2011-2012 season was 43,789.  There has been a net gain of 39,327 players and a 880% increase.  This region by far has seen the most growth since the early 1990's.

The NHL added the Tampa Bay Lightning (1992), Florida Panthers (1993), Carolina Hurricanes (1997), Nashville Predators (1998), and the Atlanta Thrashers (1999).  With the expansion into this region hockey was exposed at the highest level to many kids who otherwise would not have given hockey a thought.  Certain events that have contributed to the growth  in this region.

The Panthers were able to capitilize early on in their franchise by making a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996.  This was the Stanley Cup's first exposure in the deep south for a Final.  Panther fans were swept up in the excitement.  The fans even cornered the market on plastic rats and threw them on the ice after Panther goals.  The Panthers were unable to grow their fanbase however because of their extended run of missing the playoffs.  I am of the belief that the Panthers should be strongly considered for relocation. 

The Carolina Hurricanes were the next Southeastern team to make an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.  Like the Panthers they were unable to capture the title but the growth in the fanbase was notable.  Currently the Hurricanes are known for their NFL style tailgating before home games.  The fans were rewarded in 2006 when the Hurricanes were the first non traditional market in the Southeast region to win the Stanley Cup.  The Hurricanes were busy this past offseason and acquired Penguins star Jordan Staal as well as Alex Semin.  They seem committed to icing a quality product and this market will probably remain stable.  Further stabalizing the market is the transplant factor.  Raleigh has been a popular destination for people relocating from the northeast.  This will definitely continue provide the area with people that have an affinity for hockey.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have had a mixed bag of success.  It started off with their franchise being run by much the much respected legend Phil Esposito and climaxed with their 2004 Stanley Cup Championship.  The Lightning have had great star power with Vinnie Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, Dan Boyle, and Nickolai Khabibulin.  Unfortunately for the Lightning all the momentum that was gained from their Cup run was dismantled because of the year long lockout of 2004-2005.  When hockey came back it did so with a salary cap which forced the Lightning to dismantle their championsihp core.  It has taken a few years but the Lightning have now bounced back.  The Lightning have a great new owner in Jeff Vinik, legendary player Steve Yzerman as GM, and one of the brightest stars in the league in Stamkos.  The Lightning should be able to remain a stable franchise moving forward.

The Nashville Predators have grown into one of the model expansion franchises.  After battling through ownership issues they are now on stable ground and appear to have a bright future.  The on ice product has helped draw fans in as the Predators have been able to make the playoffs on a consistent basis.  The Predators have recently invested big money to keep some of its star players (Pekka Rinne and Shea Weber) to send a message to their fan base that they are serious about the on ice product. 

The city of Atlanta was given a second chance at NHL hockey and just like the first time, it fell flat on its face.  Atlanta is a huge market and its understandable why sports leagues would want to do business there but it isnt a great sports town, especially for hockey.  Ilya Kovalchuk, Dany Heatley, and Marian Hossa no doubt attracted some fans in Georgia, but ultimately it was not enough.  The Thrashers were rightfully moved to Winnipeg.  This is one expansion market that the NHL handled failure appropriately.  You try it, it doesnt work, you move it.  Needless to say the NHL will no longer be exploring the Atlanta area.

 

Pacific Region

The Pacific region as USA Hockey defines it includes:  Alaska, California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii.

In 1990 the membership totals for this region was 11,287.  The membership totals from this region for the 2011-2012 was 40,184.  There has been a net gain of 28,897 players which translates into an increase of 256%.

The San Jose Sharks (1991) and Anaheim Mighty Ducks (1993) have been the NHL teams added to the region since 1990.  These two teams have definitely had an impact in the region but the reason those teams exist can be traced to the biggest trade in NHL history.  Wayne Gretzky paved the road for more California teams and expansion in general.  While Gretzky is a huge reason for the success in the Pacific region, the Sharks and Ducks can lay claim to some of the credit as well. 

The Mighty Ducks started off as a punchline because they were the genesis of a Disney movie. However, they  were able to successfully market their superstar players Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne which was very important because the Southern California market loves star power.  The Mighty Ducks made a Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2003 on the back of star goalie Jean Sebastian Giguere.  Coming out of the lockout the Ducks got aggressive when they signed/acquired two generational talents on defense, Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer.  The success of the Ducks led to the regions first Stanley Cup Championship in 2007.  They created enough buzz to where Snoop Dogg could be seen attending games.  Lets also not undersell the impact of the knucklepuck and the dramatic Team USA victory over Iceland in the 1994 Junior Goodwill Games.

The Sharks started off slow as a franchise but have totally ramped it up since.  They have been a perennial playoff team (last time missed playoffs 2002-2003) with a good amount of star power for the past decade. While they have never been able to get to a Stanley Cup Final, they have always put out a quality product and actively search out top talent to acquire.  Their attendance is always solid and look to be a great franchise for years to come.

Last and certainly not least the Los Angeles Kings have had a very important role in building up hockey culture in California.  Marcell Dionne started the process and the huge blockbuster trade involving Wayne Gretzky turbo charged it.  Wayne Gretzky's trade to the Kings cannot be overstated.  It changed the perception of what a hockey market could be.  Immediately the Kings were the "in" thing in LA.  As soon as the NHL saw how successful the Kings were, this led to Bettman wanting to see what other markets could offer. Winning the Stanley Cup in 2012 was also a huge moment as that will most likely lead to more kids playing hockey in SoCal.  Unfortunately for LA, much like when Tampa won its Cup, the lockout probably snuffed out some of the potentially great momentum that was built up in the market. 

If the Ducks and the Kings could ever match up in the playoffs against one another it would create tremendous buzz in the region and would most ceratinly lead to more casual fans tuning in.  The Ducks need to lock up Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf to help make that a realitiy moving forward

 

Rocky Mountain Region

The name of this region can be a little misleading.  USA Hockey defines this region as including the following areas/states:  Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Idaho, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming.

The three significant areas that pertain to this discussion are Colorado, Texas, and Arizona.  These are the 3 states that have gained NHL franchises since 1990.  The Dallas Stars (1993), Colorado Avalanche (1995), and Phoenix Coyotes (1996). 

The membership total from the 1990-1991 season was 7,304 players.  Currently the Rocky Mountain region has a membership total of 37,826 and has seen an overall increase of 418% since 1990.

The Avalanche have had tremendous on ice success since moving to Colorado in 1995.  The transition was seamless as the Nordiques had a terrific lineup that was only made better with the acquisition of Patrick Roy.  The star power for the Avalanche was as good as it gets. The Avalanche fans have been treated to such stars as:  Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Rob Blake, Chris Drury, Milan Hejduk, and Ray Bourque. This has no doubt  had a positive influence on the growth of this region. Also helping the region is the highly successful collegiate program at the University of Denver.  That has no doubt assisted in garnering interest in the sport of hockey in Colorado.

The Dallas Stars were transplanted from Minnesota in the 1993 season.  They have had the benefit of employing Mike Modano for almost the entirety of their existence.  Having a marketable American star has been a great tool in growing the sport in Texas.  Ultimately Dallas starting icing very competitive teams on a yearly basis  that have included other notable American players such as Bret Hull, Bill Guerin, Derian Hatcher, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Darryl Sydor.

Phoenix is probably the most polarizing NHL market.  Its pretty clear, at least to me, that this a failed market.  The NHL was right to try this area of the country, but it just has not worked out.  There have been multiple unsuccessful ownership groups (including the league itself) and consistent lease issues.  This is a market that I would relocate.  While I have no doubt that there have been gains in membership since the Coyotes landed in Phoenix/Glendale, I just don’t think that it merits the team sticking around. Much like the situation in Atlanta, the league would be wise to cut its ties to Phoenix and move the franchise to a more stable and lucrative market, especially after having an extended lockout about money.

As you can see, the expansion movement from the early to mid 1990’s is going to have a great impact on the future of USA Hockey and its ability to find top level players for international competition.  For each future medal that Team USA wins, take a glance at the roster and ask yourself how many of those players would be playing hockey if not for that expansion.  Gary Bettman certainly deserves his criticisms but I don’t think American fans should blindly follow the Canadian fans’ lead.  Bettman has had a hand in providing new and fruitful pipelines for Team USA talent.  This is a pipeline that is only going to continue to grow and produce more top end players as time goes on.

Below is a graph of USA Hockey’s membership totals since 1990-1991.  As you can see the sport has grown immensely in the United States during the Bettman administration. 

 

Online Graphing

To make a comparison; according to the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Canada has 617,107 registered players as of 2011-2012.  This makes up 1.799% of their population The United States has significantly closed the gap and now sits at 511,178.  Only 0.163% of the United States population plays hockey.  That percentage is starting to climb and will further help tip the scales in the United States favor.  If the current growth in USA Hockey continues, it is only a matter of time before the United States has more people playing hockey than Canada.  Clearly the United States (311,591,917) has an immense advantage in total population compared to Canada (34,482,779)But that doesn’t matter when the puck is dropped and the talent hits the ice. 

Another positive about USA Hockey is that their organization is streamlined all across the country.  All USA Hockey coaches need to be certified through USA training programs.  This helps with maintaining a high standard which leads to more quality instruction.  USA Hockey started national development team programs in the mid 90's and that has also added to the quality of the international product.  USA Hockey is gaining more members, but it is also training these new players with a quality program that is standardized thorughout the nation no matter what region the player is from. 

Socioeconomics will always be a stumbling block to the growth of hockey.  Hockey is expensive and not an option for all families.  But since Wayne Gretzky’s blockbuster trade to Los Angeles and Bettman’s subsequent expansion into non traditional hockey markets, USA hockey has been silently building up its talent base.  It might take another 10-15 years, but USA Hockey is on the path to be a consistent favorite on the international hockey scene, if not the super power.  A thought that would have been considered crazy a mere 20 years ago. 

Thanks for reading!

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